Columbia Entrepreneurs: Tiny Bots From Nano Hydrophobics Have Huge Potential For Climate Impact

Peter H. Boyd is not your typical Silicon Valley startup founder. He co-founded Nano Hydrophobics after already having worked a long and successful career. With Nano, he’s introducing a brand new type of surface coating for industrial uses, aimed at improving material surfaces. The potential impact of something just 500 nanometers thick (.5% the thickness of a sheet of paper) is huge in terms of reduced energy waste and CO2 emissions.

Nano Hydrophobics is one of five Columbia University-affiliated startups selected to present at the 4th Annual Columbia Startup Demo Night in San Francisco on September 20, 2018. In this Q&A, Peter explains the industrial applications of his product, the potential impact on climate change, and a bit about his journey in founding the company.

Peter H. Boyd, co-founder of Nano Hydrophobics Inc.

In just a couple of sentences, what does Nano Hydrophobics Inc. do?

Think about the world around you. Everything material thing you see has certain physical surface properties that affect how that surface performs in its environment.

We’re developing a novel chemical technology that enables us to easily coat surfaces with very thin coatings, around 500 nanometers thick.

To put that in context, one sheet of ordinary copier paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

These coatings represent a whole new species of nano-scale coatings that improve material surface properties in order to solve many consumer and industrial problems like scaling, fouling, drag, ice accumulation and corrosion. These problems have big price tags for industry and for what you pay for the things you purchase. These problems also waste large amounts of energy and generate substantial CO2.

You offer “nano-scale coatings for protecting immersed surfaces” — can you please explain this in lay terms? What are some example applications for your product?

OK, let’s talk about our first product, which is directed at a problem that has plagued industry since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We now have the ability to protect heat transfer surfaces in factories.

Now that sounds terribly boring until you realize that almost everything that is produced requires thermal energy — heat — during its manufacturing process. And that heat is being generated mostly by carbon-based fuels because renewable power is not efficient enough and can’t create enough heat to meet the vast quantities that are needed in factories. The second thing is that factories usually move, control, and recapture heat by using water — because it’s cheap and it is very conductive.

Now here’s problem. Factories experience the same problem that you have at home with your kettle or coffee maker. Dissolved minerals in the water naturally transform into mineral crystals when the water comes into contact with hot surfaces. Those little white crystals adhere like cement, and because they are like many minerals, they do not conduct heat very well.

Those little crystals slow down the movement of heat in factories, often to the point that the factory needs to shut down. And as factories efficiency declines, it uses — wastes — energy which generates useless emissions, increases factory costs and lowers productivity. Consumers end up paying more for everything.

Our nano-coating protects the heat transfer surfaces in factories by giving them a ‘self-cleaning’ property so the crystals can’t adhere and fall off. That saves energy and reduces CO2. Think of it as a new Teflon on steroids but so very thin that the coating doesn’t affect the heat transfer.

Can you explain why this is important? What’s your target market?

Many industries have problems on the surfaces of materials. Scaling on industrial heat exchangers is a multi-billion dollar problem. Corrosion of surfaces is another big problem. And we have a growing need for water, some which will come from desalination. But the membranes removing the salts get fouled and end up using more energy to make fresh water.

We’re focused on the heat exchanger industry because it’s a worldwide, natural, never-ending problem that’s the basis for a profitable recurring revenue business. It’s a place where we can do some good before we depart this planet.

This month happens to be when the Global Climate Action Summit is taking place in San Francisco. Your product has some implications for sustainability and climate change. Can you explain?

Everyone knows about CO2 emissions, right? What most people don’t realize is that the industrial sector uses about 30% of our prime energy. It’s mostly carbon-based. And this unaddressed problem of fouling in factories causes about 1% of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Now think about China and other emerging economies. 70% of its total prime energy goes into China’s industrial sector. Again, mostly carbon-based fuels. And there you can see the emissions.

This problem is getting bigger, not smaller.

Consider that the global middle class in 2016 was about 3.2 Billion people. But with a projected CAGR of 4.3%, in twelve years, in 2028, the middle class will be 5.2 billion people. As those new consumers move into the middle class, those 2 Billion are going to want all the goods and services that you enjoy.

To satisfy those wants, factory production will have to grow by 50% or 60%. And the world can’t magically re-tool its entire factory base in the next decade. That means that we need to do everything we can to make factories more thermal-energy efficient, and by doing so, we’ll also be reducing factory costs and operational headaches.

Do you have any observations for your industry to share?

One observation is that market forces in the investment community naturally cause it to seek the highest returns with the lowest risk. What we’ve come to realize is that fundamental scientific breakthroughs that deliver big progress don’t come quickly or easily, and can’t compete very successfully for capital when facing the digital opportunities that have business models that can deliver fast scaling and quick exits. That’s part of the reason that we’ve had to bootstrap for the last seven years to get to the threshold of introducing our first product.

What flows from my first observation, is that you better have a lot of fortitude, what I call grit, if you want to proceed down the science path. It’s exciting but it can be punishing.

Can you tell us a bit about your science?

Using ordinary chemicals, state-of-the-art software and artificial intelligence, we’re turning traditional molecules into molecular machines — we call them “tiny bots.” They’re programmed to move to where they’re needed, and assemble into highly organized, multi-layered structures.

These structures, made up of layers that are only a few atoms thick, can be put on the surfaces of many different materials including metals, thermo-plastics, and rubber. It gives these materials important new properties that will improve their performance and lengthen their life.

Our little bots can keep surfaces clean, protect them from corrosion, and even repair the protective structure if it’s damaged! Our breakthrough can significantly improve how the world packages food, filters water, and creates fuel. Our little bots can also help you get all the product out of a container, and lengthen food’s shelf life. Plus, they can reduce the energy needed to turn saltwater into fresh, and they can make refineries more efficient.

This is not just a dream — our little bots are already working in factories. We’ve put them on the surfaces of heat exchangers to protect them from mineral fouling. That lowers factory downtime, maintenance costs, and shrinks their CO2 emissions.

Using our platform, we can make different bots for different problems including, fouling, scaling, oil-water separation, reduced drag and preventing ice formation. They can deliver improvements for factories, power generators, packaging, paper mills, food processing and refineries.

We love our Tiny Bots!

How did the founding team come together? What makes you great co-founders?

My co-founder and I both have a lot of experience. We started Nano at the end of our careers in the hope that we could do something that would leave this place a little better off and maybe make some money for our retirement.

Today, we don’t see retirement as an option — we want to have fun growing this business, and deploying our Tiny Bots around the world to solve big problems.

What has been your greatest success so far while building the company?

Against very steep odds, we have survived! Now we’re close to the launching our first product. We’ve already tested it in industrial settings, so we are very close!

You went to Columbia Business School. How have your experiences at Columbia contributed to where you are now?

I graduated from Columbia Business School in 1973. Back then, they didn’t have entrepreneurial courses. But in my corporate career, I became involved in launching a number of new businesses. I also was President of the Business School alumni club in New York City for a number of years, to try and build the alumni network which can be a valuable thing that you take from your school affiliation.

While building your company, what have you learned so far that you wish someone had told you before you started this journey?

Do something digital!

Where can we learn more about Nano Hydrophobics?

You can find us online at nanohydrophobics.com, and on LinkedIn. Thanks for having us at Demo Night.

Thanks Peter!

To meet Peter and learn more about Nano Hydrophobics, plus meet four other innovative startups, come to the 4th Annual CVC Demo Night in San Francisco. It’s the biggest event for Columbia entrepreneurs on the West Coast. Get tickets and details here.

— Irene Malatesta is a writer, marketer, and CVC West board member. You can find her @irenekaoru.